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Cambridge: What Makes for a Successful City in the 21st Century?


“Although the notion of a city is well established, our idea of a good or successful one has transformed over time. While one hundred years ago a good city was one with rivers and ports for transport, a large pool of workers and access to fuel sources, nowadays the emphasis is much more on the people of a city. A successful city doesn’t just house a vast amount of people; it is the breeding ground for creativity, innovation and information. This is just the type of place we believe Cambridge is and we want to keep it at the forefront of what makes a successful city as we continue to grow.”


In many respects Cambridge is considered successful both nationally and internationally. Thanks to its highly skilled population, for which Cambridge is ranked the best in the UK, the city flourishes with many innovative businesses and strong economic activity. This is reflected in its outstanding rates of growth. According to the Cambridge Cluster Map, between Q1 2015-Q1 2016 both employment and turnover saw a 7.6% increase in Cambridge, led by an astonishing 32% and 10.5% growth in turnover and employment respectively for life sciences[1].

But Cambridge hasn’t only been successful in the last year. In an analysis of “all job growth” from 1911 to 2013, Cambridge was ranked the 4th best city in the country[2]. When we consider its international peers such as Hamburg (Germany), Barcelona (Spain), Haarlem (Netherlands) and Silicon Valley (USA), it is clear to see that Cambridge had huge economic potential with its high GVA per head. But, despite its very knowledge intensive workforce, Cambridge is starting to face complications in light of its progressive success.

Prosperous turnover and employment growth attracts thousands of new residents to the city of Cambridge, who, in turn, generate high economic activity and feed the city’s creative, innovative and knowledge intensive core. However an influx of people has given rise to a number of issues that now hamper Cambridge as people are being priced out of the city. According to Centre for Cities Cambridge is now the third least affordable location in the country for housing.

The lack of affordable housing causes an increase in commuting distance and duration which hinders productivity by 22% and limits the possibility of working overtime by 11%[3]. In addition to the housing situation, increasing pressure is being put on the city’s already insufficient infrastructure. Inadequate transport, connectivity that’s (quite literally) lagging behind, and traffic congestion are all mounting up and in dire need of addressing. Ultimately is it these elements that will restrict local company growth, recruitment and staff retention.


Cambridge is without doubt a successful city. Nevertheless, to maintain their high standards all good cities need to reinvent themselves, adapt, and change with economic needs. Regardless of what changes occur, according to Centre for Cities there are particular factors that are fundamental to the success of a city. They are:

  • skills
  • innovation
  • quality of life
  • infrastructure
  • finance
  • leadership

These elements are interdependent, you cannot perfect one area without working on others too. For example, improving transport would help alleviate the housing crisis because commuting would become less undesirable and people would be willing to live further from the city centre. That change in direction would take the pressure off new housing developments so rather than rushing to build houses that look more like student accommodation than solutions that meet the needs of our residents, time could be taken to design and plan the land effectively to be put to good use. Dr Tom Holbrook said that “a good city is a well-designed city”. That needn’t be expensive or cheap – just considered and thoughtfully planned.

A city so rich in economic growth and knowledge as Cambridge needs to foster positive interactions between working and living, as we find the line that separates them is increasingly blurred.


The next logical question: how do we do this? How exactly do we bring Cambridge, an already successful city, into a city for the future? One thing is for sure: we can’t do it alone. At the heart of the East of England, Cambridge is the region’s gateway to crucial transportation links as well as fellow fast growing cities like Oxford, Norwich, Swindon and Milton Keynes. To make the most of Cambridge’s global potential it needs to collaborate with neighbours like the LSCC, the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc and GCGP LEP and of course, its future mayor. Collaboration within our own populous has got us so far, but we need to broaden our horizon if we’re to continue our success.

The devolution deal will prove to be a big milestone is Cambridge’s progressive journey. But to tackle its issues head-on Cambridge needs real fiscal devolution. Cambridge has the potential; it just needs the right governance and more fiscal autonomy to deliver better growth even faster. Still, what Cambridge crucially needs to remain successful, is unity.

Governance and fiscal autonomy will provide opportunities to drive sustainable growth, but instead of being splintered or disjointed we need combined authorities to agree to an integrated plan they will all adhere to. 7% per annum compound equates to 97% growth in ten years[4]. As Matthew Bullock states, that’s phenomenal growth and something we need to plan and “manage in a civilised way”.

Yet ten years is a relatively short amount of time. In ten years’ time we don’t want Cambridge to suddenly fall off the pedestal we’ve lifted it to and to fall back from its international standing, especially with BREXIT looming. So rather than look at the immediate issues, it is vital to look beyond the short term and take a step back to focus on the bigger picture. By concentrating on longer-term goals we’ll see the short-term challenges find their place within the grand plans and they will, by default be addressed.


A successful city is judged by the people that make it. Cambridge has a rich and diverse populous who are pioneers in many fields, but they need a city that can continue to support them in their growth. People need that support in skills, infrastructure, finance, leadership, quality of life and innovation in order for their businesses, research and personal development to flourish. We can only achieve this by working together, not just now but for years to come. Keeping Cambridge successful is a multi-generational project and as one team follows another they need a clear plan to follow and a sense of unity to uphold. Integrated authorities need not only to engage with each other, neighbouring fast-growth cities and organisations, but also with the very people that make Cambridge what it is. It’ll be those people who show how great Cambridge can really be.


All the presentations materials from the event are available at http://www.cambridgeahead.co.uk/successful/ 

To find other media reports, please use the following links: –

BBC Look East West report https://youtu.be/fqIBDzwJSGY

That’s Cambridge TV article https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HH1_FSnAjA8

Cambridge News http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/business/business-news/rapid-growth-cambridge-life-sciences-12473456

[1] Cambridge Cluster Map http://www.camclustermap.com/#?&coll=%7B%22company…

[2] Census 1911; Nomis Business Register and Employment Survey (from Centre for Cities presentation http://www.cambridgeahead.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Alex-Jones-Successful-Cities-180117.pdf)

[3] Cambridge Ahead Growth Update – survey in progress http://www.cambridgeahead.co.uk/wp-content/uploads…

[4] http://www.cambridgeahead.co.uk/wp-content/uploads…